The Los Angeles Film Festival kicked-off last week, and as usual it kind of signaled my arrival at the mid-point of the year. I attended the fest for the first time last year and as a result I was perhaps a little charitable to the first six months of 2010. That was a solid slate of films no doubt, and the year as a whole turned out to be quite strong in my opinion, but as the year drew to a close and I was privileged enough to catch a glimpse of a handful of films lined up for release in the early part of 2011, it became obvious that it would be the following year that would be the one to remember. And indeed it has been. 2011 has, in just six short months, offered up a selection of films to rival any full year in recent memory, and that includes 2007, 2005, 2001-- you name it.
The amount of quality 2010 festival films that have found first half distribution this year is simply staggering. Below you'll find a list of the fifteen absolute best films I've seen this year so far (guidelines being an American release date sometime between January 1st and June 31st), but make no mistake, a half dozen or more of these films-- say, in a rough order: Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy, The Tree of Life, Meek's Cutoff, Film Socialisme, Aurora, Poetry, and Tuesday, After Christmas-- are individually strong enough to carry an entire year, and would be worthy #1 selections in their own right in any other year that I care to name. We've already seen two masters (Malick and Kiarostami) return to the industry in their own unique ways; two promising young Americans (Katz and Reichardt) come into their own; two Romanian new wave autuers (Puiu and Muntean) demonstratively extend their fertile movement into the new decade; a living legend (Godard) split opinion with a challenging, vital work in essay filmmaking; and, most impressively, arguably the greatest filmmaker of his generation (Apichatpong) scale heights of near unprecedented artistry.
Between these massive peaks lay a handful of equally worthy titles, from a uniquely outlined docu-fiction hybrid (The Arbor) to a flamboyant Spanish melodrama (To Die Like a Man) to a deeply religious, tonal meditation set within a monastery (Of Gods and Men) to a similarly spiritual conflation of the earthly and the astronomical (Nostalgia for the Light) to an observational depiction of nature's never-ending life cycles (Le quattro volte) to a Korean performance piece kneaded to devastating effect (Poetry) to a nearly half-decade old Japanese historical epic just now receiving U.S. distribution (United Red Army). And that's just what has made the list. Unfortunately omissions include Takashi Miike's galvanizing samurai flick 13 Assassins, Werner Herzog's hypnotic study of tribal cave paintings Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Xavier Dolan's swooningly reverent menage-a-trois/coming-of-age romance Heartbeats, Elia Sulieman's semi-autobiographical family drama The Time That Remains, and Woody Allen's charmingly nostalgic Midnight in Paris.
It was certainly tough to cut these films, but it'll be even harder-- as in, I don't even want to think about it-- to potentially cut some of the list-making fifteen films in favor of some heavy hitters already lined-up for the second half of the year. There's Raul Ruiz's five hour, ten-years-the-making Mysterious of Lisbon (which I'm seeing Saturday at the LAFF), Hong Sang-soo's The Day He Arrives (or potentially like three other films he has out there in varying states of distribution limbo), and highest on my personal radar of anticipation, Bela Tarr's sure-to-be-epic swan song The Turin Horse. I've also seen a number of films this year that haven't been released yet, that, if granted distribution, will undoubtedly be in major consideration for my year-end list, including Mohammed Roussolof's draining spiritual odyssey The White Meadows, Jia Zhangke's tribute to Shanghai and the mainland cinema I Wish I Knew, Li Hongqi's static, pitch-black comedy Winter Vacation, Nicolas Winding Refn's bad-ass Drive, and Liu Jiayin's formalist masterwork Oxhide II. The only film that actually was released in America that I didn't have a chance to see is Zhao Liang's Petition, which I may have to break down and buy on French DVD if it doesn't make it's way to Los Angeles (or to my hard drive) sooner rather than later.
What I'm trying to say, then, I guess, is that 2011 is the real deal, a year we will be looking back on in awe when the decade closes. But these are my fifteen favorite films of the year so far-- fifteen of the best films you'll see any year-- and fifteen more reasons to continuing believing in the power of the cinematic form. As always, me #1 selection is highlighted in red.
The Arbor / Clio Bernard
Aurora / Cristi Puiu
Certified Copy / Abbas Kiarostami
Cold Weather / Aaron Katz
Film Socialisme / Jean-Luc Godard
Meek’s Cutoff / Kelly Reichardt
Nostalgia for the Light / Patricio Guzman
Of Gods and Men / Xavier Beauvois
Poetry / Lee Chang-dong
Le quattro volte / Michelangelo Frammartino
To Die Like a Man / João Pedro Rodrigues
The Tree of Life / Terrence Malick
Tuesday, After Christmas / Radu Muntean
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / Apichatpong Weerasethakul
United Red Army / Kōji Wakamatsu